How Chinese in Spain responded to the coronavirus

Baazar at a busy tourist destination in Madrid

After two and a half months of lockdown, one June 1st the autonomous community Valencia entered phase two of the transition process, back to normality after the strict pandemic lockdown since mid-March. Although some businesses did so earlier, all the survivors have now reopened.

Of course, this includes those run by foreigners. Nowadays, the Chinese are a relevant group among them. According to Spanish news agency Europa Press, the number of Chinese citizens legally living in Spain rose from 2,036 in 1998 to 202,093 in 2020. Nobody knows for sure how many stay in the shadows, as they remain a rather insulated community. Even before massive immigration began, there was the Spanish saying “The Chinese never die!” Locals believed that if one of them passed away, another one would take his place and his passport. As many Asians think that all Westerners look alike and vice versa, few would notice any difference.

54% of those that came in the last 22 years from the People’s Republic of China are self-employed (autónomos). This is the highest percentage of any recent immigrant group. They are highly visible, as many of them run shops that basically sell everything. The joke goes that if you can’t find a product there, it’s probably not available in the country. These stores, which used to be called just bazares, essentially sell cheap items. Before the old currency peseta was definitely abolished at the end of 2001, they were known as ”Todo a 100”, the average price. With the arrival of the euro, that changed to ”Todo a 0,60”. Over time, they are just called “Chinos”, referring to the owner’s ethnicity. This category includes the vast majority of souvenir shops at all tourist destinations.

Another sector where their presence is obvious are restaurants and bars, yet not only in the Chinese quarter of every large city in Spain. Even a lot of traditional Spanish places have been taken over by Chinese. They often kept their old names, but the staff is 100% Asian. Quite a few of these culinary establishments serve both local and “exotic” food. The latter one is truly forgettable. What makes them attractive is that they offer better prices and as a rule operate during weekends.

Both of these businesses have in common that they were the first to be on alert after the virus that had originated in China in late December 2019 reached Europe at the end of January 2020. That was exactly the time when Chinese New Year was celebrated this year. Most of them had taken their usual month-long break anyway, but some just didn’t reopen.

Others did, though not for long. Nearly all of them shut down long before the coronavirus actually started to hit Spain hard in mid-March. A friend told me that the Chinese proprietor of a bar near his office was very open about the reason why he had decided to stop making money indefinitely and preferred to return to China with his mother: “The Spaniards aren’t taking this seriously enough!”

Unfortunately, he was very right. Strong family ties resulting in frequent interaction between generations, certain social habits like frequent kissing and hugging and a Mediterranean laissez faire mentality, in combination with the sheer incompetence of a progressive central government driven by ideological delusions, proved to be a lethal cocktail. The performance of Spain’s Socialists and Communists has caused over 27,000 deaths so far. Since last week, even these scary figures are disputed and might increase significantly.

The level of distrust of Chinese residents and the subsequent strong desire to leave Spain urgently even led to arguments at Spanish travel agencies. Psychical fights about tickets to the motherland almost broke out. Scared out of their minds, they were basically trying to escape from a country deemed unsafe. Considering the drastic measures at that the time had already been adopted in China, that’s understandable.

To be fair, not all of them panicked. The owner of one of those bazaars, which was probably the last in my area to go into confinement, told me in a calm and friendly matter to stock enough provisions and protect myself. I also remember that he said “Milan is the new Wuhan”! By mischance, he also hit the nail on the head…

The Chinese community in Spain reacted to the looming deadly virus much earlier than the locals.


  1. the number of Chinese citizens legally living in Spain rose from 2,036 in 1998 to 202,093 in 2020. That means that officially their number increased sixteen-fold

    I shall call Herr Petri to give you some urgently needed lessons 😀

    • You are actually right! Sorry for not realizing the mistake! But that calculation isn’t my own. Please complain to Europa Press!


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